Stephen said to the high priest and the council: ‘You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.’ When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.
Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.
In all the excitement of the Christmas season and the ensuing feelings of exhaustion, it is not unusual for us to overlook the Festival of Stephen, deacon and first Christian martyr. Despite this common oversight it is good for us to pause for a moment and reflect on this man who is described as being full of faith, grace and spiritual power. We read of Stephen being one of the seven Greek speaking disciples of Jesus who were chosen to assist the apostles. These seven people are commonly referred to as deacons, although that description does not appear in Scripture. In the Church the term deacon is used to describe one who is called to serve in the Lord’s name. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy (3:8-13) we find a description of the qualities that should be demonstrated by all called to the office of deacon: seriousness, honesty, sobriety, generosity and great boldness in the faith. This person specification gives us an idea of the role model Stephen is for all who profess the faith of Jesus Christ.
Today’s reading comes at the end of Stephen’s great speech to the Sanhedrin, or Council. This Council, which dated back to the fourth century BC, comprised 71 Chief Priests, Elders and Scribes. This was an aristocratic senate which formed the highest court of law in the Jewish tradition, and was noted for its competence and reputation. It was before this illustrious body that Stephen stood and spoke of the sweep of early Jewish history. Stephen also attacked the Council. He described them as being uncircumcised in heart and ears, that is, not truly dedicated to serving God. He described them as being just like their predecessors, that is, contemptuous of the prophets (God’s messengers) to the point of persecuting and murdering them. And … he accused them of killing God’s promised Messiah and, thereby, demonstrating their utter contempt for God’s law. Stephen must have known that his outspoken Christian testimony could only end in outrage, anger and his death. But … Stephen remained steadfast to his calling as a servant of Christ.
All who would claim to be followers of Christ are called to live the Christian life in the same spirit of seriousness, honesty, sobriety and generosity as Stephen. We are also called to show great boldness in the faith. It is easy for us to impose our own limitations to the life of faith. But … the life-changing nature of God’s call cannot be limited by us, not if we are to live out our discipleship to the full. We may not be called to die an horrendous death in Christ’s name, but we will never know the path God wants us to tread unless we take his hand and follow him. Consider Saul, the young man who looked after the coats of those who killed Stephen. Saul … the young man who would soon be transformed into Paul, that great evangelist whose profound hatred for Christians became the deepest and most committed love of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.